On November 28, 1996, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, 16-year-old Michael Sturgeon, at the urging of two friends, knocked on the back door of house that one of his friends told him belonged to that friend’s grandmother. When the woman came to the door, Sturgeon, as instructed by his friends, asked if Jacob was home. When she said there was no one named Jacob there, Sturgeon heard one of the friends yell at him to run away.
When Sturgeon met up with his friends later, he learned that while he was talking to the grandmother, the two other youths were stealing her purse.
Two days later, Lake Geneva police officer Russell Carstensen interviewed Sturgeon at the Lake Geneva Police station. Carstensen claimed that Sturgeon admitted knocking on the back door of the woman’s home and keeping the woman occupied while the two other youths, identified only as RJW and Andy King, were at the front of the house. Sturgeon told him that King ran from the house, and yelled for Sturgeon to run as well.
On January 13, 1997, Sturgeon was charged as an adult with burglary and theft. At a preliminary hearing in Walworth County Circuit Court, RJW testified that he and King and Sturgeon agreed to rob RJW’s grandmother by having Sturgeon knock on the door and ask for a fictitious person, while RJW and King came through the front door and stole RJW’s grandmother’s purse.
Carstensen testified that Sturgeon told him that “he was supposed to go to the back door, knock on the back door and when Mrs. (W) came to the back door, he was supposed to ask if Jacob was home. There was no Jacob there, but he was just supposed to distract her long enough” for RJW and King to steal the purse.
Sturgeon’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress Sturgeon’s confession, claiming it was involuntary. Sturgeon told his lawyer that he had no idea that RJW and King were going to rob RJW’s grandmother—that he thought it was all a prank.
At a hearing on the motion, Lake Geneva Police Chief Richard Meinel testified that he was present during Carstensen’s interrogation. Meinel confirmed Carstensen’s account. Carstensen testified to the confession, and also said he had questioned Sturgeon on December 3—three days after the confession—at Sturgeon’s school. Carstensen said that was about another, unrelated incident. The motion to suppress was denied.
Sturgeon then agreed to plead guilty to a felony burglary charge in exchange for 120 days in jail followed by probation.
Two months later, Sturgeon obtained a new attorney, who filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. The motion contended that Sturgeon had reason to believe that his statements to Carstensen about his being unaware of the plan to steal the purse had been recorded.
When prosecutors investigated, they found a transcript of an interview of Sturgeon, conducted by Carstensen and other officers, at Badger High School. According to the transcript, during this interview Sturgeon said he received no money from the theft, that he was “used” to go to the door and that he “didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on until the purse ended up with (them).”
The prosecution then interviewed Meinel, the police chief, who conceded that Sturgeon, during his interview with Meinel and Carstensen, claimed at the outset that he was unaware of any criminal intention by RJW and King. The prosecution acknowledged that this exculpatory version of Sturgeon’s role was not included in Carstensen’s police report of the interview.
The judge denied the motion to withdraw the guilty plea, but in an unusual turn, the judge allowed Sturgeon to testify. Sturgeon offered his version of events—that he knew nothing about what was going to happen—and testified that he felt had no choice but to plead guilty because of RJW’s confession.
Sturgeon appealed and in November 1999, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals vacated Sturgeon’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court held that while Sturgeon knew of his exculpatory statements, the proof of those statements was in the prosecution and police files and should have been disclosed to the defense to buttress Sturgeon’s claim of innocence.
On February 16, 2000, the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley